Over the years, I have come to find that my theological views and my devotional practices have changed. Growing up, I was very very uncomfortable with the notion of “praying to/ invoking the Saints”. After a year or two of studying church history, theology, and Scripture and a great deal of soul searching, I found myself accepting the idea that we could ask Saints to pray for us. I now joyfully include a “Hail Mary” and the “St. Michael Prayer” after the “Our Father” in my daily prayers. This post will be the first part in a series of blog posts about my patron Saints… who they are, why I chose them, and what they mean to me. But first, I suppose it would be efficacious for me to talk a little bit about who Saints are and why we can and should invoke them and ask for their prayers.
*** This is not meant to be a complete defense of the practice of invoking the Saints, but merely a brief explanation of its history and the theology behind it.
What is a Saint?
The word “saint” literally means “holy”, deriving from the Greek verb ἁγιάζω which means “to make holy”. In the New Testament, the term refers to any believer- any Christian, and often the terms can be interchangeable. The idea was that after a man or woman had become a Christian through the Sacrament of Baptism, they were a different person, now made holy.
Over time however, the church also developed an alternate definition for the word. In the first centuries after the death and Resurrection of Our Lord, the church faced violent persecution. As a consequence, the earliest Christian communities were marked by the presence of quite a few martyrs. (As a side note, the church has historically grown significantly during times of persecution, which is why it has been said that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” -Tertullian 197 AD) These holy people who died defending the faith were often venerated after their deaths by the communities which they came from. They were given the title of “Saint” as an acknowledgement of their virtuous death, and were considered to be in Heaven as a result. Over time, certain Christians who lived exceptionally holy and virtuous lives (but were not necessarily martyred for their faith) were also given this special status in the eyes of Holy Church.
What is invocation of the Saints?
It is NOT “praying to Saints”, but instead ASKING for THEIR prayers. Anything more than that and it’s basically heresy. All we can do is ask them to pray for us. A simple “St. _____, pray for me” can suffice. Although we can ask them to intercede for us for specific things, we should be careful not to talk to them as if they were God or as if they had the ability to give us the help we desire. Saints have no power of their own. In fact, it is only through God (in His infinite love and mercy) that we can ask the Saints to pray for us at all. When we invoke their intercession we should remember that it is not as if we are praying to them instead of God. On the contrary, we are communing with the Saints through and with our Heavenly Father.
As baptised Christians, we are a part of the Communion of Saints. The church has always understood this to mean that we are a communion of prayer… both for each other and with each other. When we ask a Saint (or all the Saints) to pray for us, it is no different than me asking my friend Jen to pray for me. Christ’s death and resurrection “trampled down death by death”. As a result, death doesn’t get the last word when it comes to our souls, and furthermore, those in Heaven are just as much alive (if not moreso) as you and I are. So we aren’t “talking to dead people” (as many people like to say), but we are engaging with God and the whole Communion of Saints- which is very much alive and very real. And who better to have praying for you than someone who is already united with Christ, worshiping Him eternally at the foot of the altar?!
Why ask for their prayers?
The pious practice of invoking the Saints has existed since the earliest centuries of the Church (especially the martyrs). An example:
“You victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Savior, you who have boldness of speech toward the Lord himself, you saints, intercede for us who are timid and sinful men, full of sloth, that the grace of Christ may come upon us, and enlighten the hearts of all of us so that we may love him” -St. Ephraim the Syrian (Commentary on Mark [A.D. 370]).
It is widely accepted in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy (the two largest “churches” in the world), as well as in many “high-church” Anglican parishes.
Holy Scripture suggests that the Angels and Saints in Heaven are in constant prayer before God and that they (through God’s love and mercy) can intercede on our behalf. (I would like to go more in depth on the biblical backing for this, but I will leave it for another post!)
It binds us together in a radical and beautiful way as the Communion of Saints, and helps the Church grow in the love of God and each other in the fellowship of the Holy Ghost.
What the Saints mean to me, personally.
As I stated at the beginning of the post, I used to be very uncomfortable with the idea of asking Saints to pray for me. After an “intellectual” acceptance of the practice, I was still uncomfortable actually practicing it. One method which I used to help overcome this was adding the “Hail Mary” and “St. Michael Prayer” to my daily prayers. (I will go more in depth about these prayers in future posts.)
I have come to love the Saints, and through their prayers I have grown closer to God and to His Holy Church, which has existed and fought the good fight for the last 2000 years. The Saints are our role models… our superheros!… and it is a beautiful gift that we are able to ask for them to pray for and with us as a Communion of Saints, which spans both space and time.
So who are my patrons?
- The Blessed Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Walsingham, Our Lady of Perpetual Help)
- St. Michael the Archangel
- St. Joseph
- St. Augustine of Hippo
- St. Nicholas
- St. John Vianney
- St. Thomas Aquinas
- Sts. Peter & Paul
“The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Saints” by Tessa Paul